Frankie Boyle is complaining about offensive comedy. In a year of firsts and unprecedented moments, I’m not sure anyone could have seen this one coming.
The Glaswegian comic had a pop at Ricky Gervais in a podcast interview with Louis Theroux recently. Boyle said Gervais’s recent routines about transgenderism were ‘lazy’, and claimed he wasn’t even a real stand-up.
‘I would like him to have the same respect for trans people as he seems to have for animals’, Boyle intoned, nodding to Gervais’s passion for animal rights. ‘I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.’ In his 2018 stand-up special, Humanity, Gervais ripped into the idea of gender self-identification, with an extended riff on him ‘identifying’ as a chimp and the bigotry of those who dare question it.
At the Golden Globes in 2016, Gervais also ruffled feathers when he joked about Caitlyn Jenner, lauding the trans icon for ‘destroying stereotypes’ but letting the side down when it came to women drivers. (In 2015, Jenner was involved in a fatal car crash.)
That Gervais’s unwoke material has caused outrage is hardly surprising. These days it doesn’t take much. That Frankie Boyle – a man who made his name off of sixth-formerish sick jokes – has also decided to pile in is another story entirely. For whatever you might allege about Gervais, it can doubly be said of Boyle.
In making jokes about Jenner and trans issues, woke scolds claim, Gervais was ‘punching down’ – attacking a marginalised group in society. But who could be more marginalised than, say, disabled children, which were a once-favoured target of Boyle.
In 2010, in an episode of his Channel 4 series, Boyle joked about glamour model Katie Price’s blind, autistic son Harvey. He suggested she married a cage fighter because she ‘needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from f****** her’.
It sparked outrage and an Ofcom investigation. Channel 4 stood by him. But it was forced to distance itself from Boyle two years later, after a series of jokes he tweeted about the Paralympics, which Channel 4 was broadcasting in 2012. Those Paralympics gags – he said the Saudi team were ‘mostly thieves’ – were actually relatively tame compared with his stuff over the years on Madeleine McCann, Baby P and people with Down’s syndrome.
None of this is to say that Boyle is the real wrong’un here. He’s good at what he does and comedians should be able to joke about whatever they like, so long as they can find a way to make it funny and find an audience willing to laugh at it.
To suggest that he was inciting violence or hatred or dehumanising disabled kids or one-handed Saudi Paralympians often misses the fact that he was joking. Which is kind of the point of comedy. But it is striking that Boyle isn’t prepared to extend the same courtesy to Gervais, even going so far in the Theroux podcast as to suggest that Gervais isn’t really a stand-up, and only ‘self-identifies’ as one. Har har.
Now Boyle, like much of the comedy industry, has become increasingly, ostentatiously woke in recent years. Amid the Black Lives Matter moment, his BBC show, New World Order, came to resemble a po-faced students’ union meeting, with the occasional gag thrown in. (While we’re on the matter of race and offence, that Boyle is now so keen on people watching their language is especially strange given he is one of the last mainstream comedians I can remember to get in trouble for using the n-word on television.)
A cynic might say that Boyle doesn’t really care about politics at all and just sensed which way the wind was blowing in his industry. But let’s be generous and presume he is sincere, and take this as a lesson in the importance of free speech for all. Boyle may have been offended, deeply, by Gervais’s ‘lazy’ routines. But just as he should be free to joke about dead kids or even raping Victoria Pendleton, so Gervais should be free to joke about transgenderism.
No comic should be made out to be a monster merely for poking fun at sensitive issues – certainly not by a self-righteous born-again wokist who built his entire career on ‘punching down’.